San Francisco, CA– Activism is in… at least for brands. Brand activism is shaping up to be a major theme for 2017. With a polarized political environment and a millennial generation increasing engaged in causes, brands are finding new ways to capture a distinct place in the hearts and minds of their customers. Take AirbnB for example. In response to the travel ban in the US, the company has asked their community to stand #WithRefugees. CEO Brian Chesky announced this initiative on Twitter in late January:

Brian Chesky 

Airbnb is providing free housing to refugees and anyone not allowed in the US. Stayed tuned for more, contact me if urgent need for housing
9:35 PM - Jan 28, 2017

Twitter Ads info and privacy

But the ask did not stand merely as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program. In a few days, the company launched their #WeAccept video campaign, both online and in a super bowl ad- to show the world what the brand really stood for.

Many claim that brand activism ruled the superbowl. But what exactly is brand activism? And why is it different in today’s social-minded and media driven world?

Defining Brand Activism

When done right, branding helps customers communicate something about themselves to the outside world. They subconsciously believe that “Using a MacBook shows how I think different,” or “Using Tide means I take care of my family, making me a good mom”. The ability to tie identity to consumption is a classic tool in the marketer’s arsenal for creating value, loyalty and meaning behind a brand.

But drivers for social status are shifting: from dollars to likes, possessions to experiences and ‘what you consume‘ to ‘what you create‘. Customers today don’t define themselves by what that they buy… but what they buy-into. The ability to curate and highlight your choices on social media accelerate this phenomenon. We choose what parts of our lives to promote. What communities we associate with.

These forces create an environment that turns the egotistical, altruistic. We no longer want to associate with brands that promote us as ‘consumers’, but rather members of a tribe with a higher purpose. In this mindset, an Airbnb member might think: “By using Airbnb instead of hotels, I show that I accept people from different backgrounds“.

Consumer are more likely to purchase, recommend or defend a brand if they perceive it as meeting an important societal need. And it’s not just millennials… consumers across all demographics are looking for companies to be a force for positive change in the world. Brand activism boils down to one simple question:

What are you doing as a brand to make the world a better place?

In this new world, brands have a higher-order purpose beyond their products or service. They need to engage in activities or initiatives that reflect this purpose, and then communicate that to their customers.

(Purpose + Authentic Action) x Communication = Brand Activism

For example, Airbnb could have poured millions into their CSR initiative around the refugee crisis. But their target audience is much more likely to see and resonate with a branded #WeAccept program than news of a specific corporate program.

Philip Kotler and Christian Sarkar believe the emergence of brand activismis actually the convergence of marketing-driven and corporate-driven approaches. They state that “brand activism emerges as a values-drivenagenda for companies that care about the future of society and the planet’s health“.

Why This Matters

Consumers are demanding that brands take a strong, more active stance on issues they care about. Luckily, as healthcare marketers, there is a natural fit between the purpose of our products and values driven action we can take. Here are four steps to start down the path of brand activism:

  1. Start talking about something other than your brand and focus on creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content
  2. Partner with NGOs or government on issues that are important to your customers (whether payers, patients or HCPs)
  3. Dispel falsehoods and misinformation in your therapeutic area’s digital enviroment… get experts to identify and weigh in on falsities to better inform patients and providers
  4. Sponsor a healthy debate about the items that affect your customers

There’s lots of ways to do good and become an activist for causes that matter most to our customers. If we make this part of our DNA, there’s a chance to earn an even better place in their hearts and minds.

About the Author:

Zach Friedman